Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Elmira Express

A movie about someone who moved to Elmira as a child and then went to Syracuse University? What, did someone film my life story?

Not quite. "The Express" is about football great Ernie Davis, and any comparison between the two of us would stop if anyone remembers my feeble attempts to play football. But it certainly was a must-see for me under the circumstances.

It was indeed funny to see scenes filmed at Syracuse, especially ones with the old stadium drawn in my computers. The campus sure looked good, though, as did the clipping of the Syracuse Daily Orange. I don't think any scenes were actually filmed in Elmira. I did, however, get a kick out of the point when the movie's author used the real name of the sports editor of the Elmira newspaper (Al Mallette) in a scene set in that town.

The movie is based on a nine-year-old book called "Ernie Davis : The Elmira Express." I read it a few years ago and remember thinking that it had more typographical errors than any professionally published book I had ever seen. (I hope the new edition, put out for the movie, did some cleaning.) When I heard about the plans for a movie, I wonder where the story would go. After all, Davis was the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy, but died before he could ever play a down in the National Football League. No chance at a happy ending there.

"The Express" concentrates on Davis' sophomore season, when Syracuse won the national championship. He wins over his teammates with his talent and decency as the victories pile up on the field. The centerpiece is the Cotton Bowl against Texas, and Davis battles racial prejudice in emerging victorious. That feels like the emotional highpoint, but the movie still has 20 minutes left. So it's not "Brian's Song" or "Hoosiers."

Still, it's a pretty exciting movie. Directors seem to love football movies, if only to show hard hits in slow motion from three angles. Davis seemed to get the ball on every play and run for at least a first down, but that's Hollywood. Dennis Quaid (as coach Ben Schwartzwalder) and Rob Brown (as Davis) are fine in the lead roles, and some of the dialogue is smart and snappy.

Sports fans always get picky about their films; it's easy to forget that it's not a documentary. Still, it's easy to point out that a game in which Syracuse plays at West Virginia and confronts the racist fans down there was in real life played in Syracuse. The Redskins are shown to want to trade Davis to the Browns because owner George Preston Marshall supposedly didn't want a black player on his roster. Well, Davis was traded to Cleveland for Bobby Mitchell, the first African American in Redskins' history and a future Hall of Famer in his own right.

Oh well. "The Express" still has some lessons to teach about the era that we should remember today, and Davis should never be forgotten. You could do far worse on a chilly fall day for entertainment, particularly if you are a football fan.


John Fraissinet said...

Yes, this was a different era, my friend, back when mascots were native americans rather than fruit.

Glenn Locke, The Tall Thin Guy said...

Wait, weren't you known as the Ivory Express when you were at SU?

Anonymous said...

About a year ago I saw part of the ESPN Sports Century show about Ernie Davis. I thought it was well done, and I hope to see all of it sometime. I did not realize that it had been produced many years earlier. Being from Elmira, I was proud to learn more about him, as I really did not know enough about him.